Norilsk Nickel and Gazprom are the biggest polluters in the Arctic

The landscape of Norilsk, often recognized as the most polluted place in Russia. Credit: Nordroden /
The landscape of Norilsk, often recognized as the most polluted place in Russia. Credit: Nordroden /

Publish date: October 12, 2023

Written by: Ksenia Vakhrusheva

Translated by: Charles Digges

Emissions from their sites operating in the Arctic region are greater than those from all the industries in Alaskan and Canadian Arctic combined.

“Let’s clean up the Arctic together!” “A Clean Artic for people of character!” — These and other slogans have been deployed to promote an environmental campaign financed by Norilsk Nickel and Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear power corporation. The campaigns boast that 3,300 tons of garbage have been collected and removed, including rusted-out boats, construction waste, and just general household litter cast about outside designated areas.

The project is the pride of Russian authorities and “proof” of their concern for the state of the environment in the Arctic. But by hauling off trash, the campaign volunteers are doing nothing to cleanse the Arctic of millions of tons of pollutants released into the air and water each year.

Within Russia’s Arctic Zone, there are 30 industrial sites that are classified among the most hazardous and are included in the list of those enterprises that cause the greatest harm to the environment. (The list includes 300 enterprises whose cumulative emissions constitute 60 percent of Russia’s total industrial emissions.) These 30 industrial sites are owned by nine companies and represent five industries — oil and gas production; non-ferrous and ferrous metal production; the paper and pulp industry, and coal mining.

According to data from Rosprirodnadzor, Russia’s environmental oversight agency, polluting emissions figures self-reported by Russian enterprises show that Norilsk Nickel and Gazprom, Russia’s state natural gas monopoly lead all others by a significant margin. Emissions from Norilsk Nickel total more than 1.9 million tons a year — which constitutes a full 37 percent of those 30 most hazardous industries located in the Arctic zone. Gazprom’s Arctic fields emit the lion’s share of the rest of what is emitted by those industries, totaling slightly more than 2.4 million tons per year and accounting for 45 percent overall.

To compare, the total polluting emissions released in 2021 by all industrial sources in the Arctic zone of Canada — which encompasses the Yukon and Nunavut provinces, the Northwest Territory, northern Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador — amounts to 33,600 tons, or 57 times less than Norilsk Nickel’s emissions alone. All of Alaska’s polluting emissions for the same year totaled 462,700 tons — or more than eight times less that what was spewed by Norilsk Nickel and Gazprom.

Still, the set of pollutants that are required to be reported vary slightly by country to country, so it might be more accurate to compare emissions of individual pollutants than their overall weight. The statics have been distorted by the way Russia reports its methane releases — which is accounted for in Russian data both as a greenhouse gas and a pollutant. The US, Canada and Norway, however, report it only as a greenhouse gas.

Norilsk Nickel maintains three productions sites in the Arctic — two in the Murmansk region, (which are comprised by the company villages of Nikel and Zapolyarny, and, separately, Monchegorsk) and on in the Krasnoyarsk region, at Norilsk. Some 98 percent of air pollution comes from the Norilsk site, where most of Russia’s palladium and nickel are produced, in addition to copper, platinum, cobalt, rhodium, silver, gold, iridium ruthenium, selenium, tellurium and sulfur. The main pollutant is sulfur dioxide, a colorless toxic gas that leads to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. According to Norilsk Nickel’s own figures for 2022, the corporation’s sulfur dioxide emissions totaled 1,778,000 tons. Norilsk Nickel’s prewar plans aimed to reduce this figure by 90 percent by 2025, relative to 2015 levels, but whether this is currently being pursued is unknown.  Sulfur dioxide emissions in other Arctic countries are far more modest.

For example, the entirety of Norway’s industry in the same year emitted 9,300 tons of sulfur dioxide in 2022, while in Alaska such emissions from all sources — including transport and forest fires — amounted to 34,000 tons in 2022. Sulfur dioxide emission that year in the United States amounted to 1.9 million tons, or slightly more than what is emitted by Norilsk Nickel. In the Arctic zone of Canada, in 2021, 213,500 tons of sulfur dioxide were emitted, and for all of Canada — 569,000 tons.

The primary pollutants from Gazprom’s Arctic are carbon monoxide, soot (black carbon) and methane, which form during leaks, natural gas flaring and oil production.  While US, Canadian and Norwegian regulations forbid flaring unless necessary for safety reasons, Russia has no such restriction, meaning emissions from its oil and gas industry are much higher than those of Western companies.

The primary pollutants released in Alaska include carbon monoxide, which constitutes 33 percent of the total volume of industrial pollution; volatile organic substances, which make up 18 percent of that pollution, and particulate matter, or PM10, make up 13 percent. In the Arctic region in Canada, the leading pollutant is nitrogen dioxide, comprising 58 percent of emissions, and carbon monoxide, at 18 percent.

Gazprom leads greenhouse gas emissions in the Arctic

Even though data on greenhouse gasses are grossly underestimated by Rosprirodnadzor, their presence in the Russian Arctic is nonetheless far greater than in any other Arctic country. Gazprom’s Arctic operations emit 37 million tons of greenhouse gasses a year.

This is roughly equivalent to all greenhouse gas emissions from every source, including transport, in Alaska, which in 2019 equaled 35 million tons of carbon dioxide — and it is also 60 times greater than the greenhouse gasses released by Alaska’s oil and gas production (which came to 610,000 tons of carbon dioxide in 2019). It is also 1.5 times greater than emissions from all industries in Canada’s Arctic provinces, included non-arctic southern Quebec. That total is 23,250,000 tons of carbon dioxide for 2020.  The entirety of Norway’s greenhouse gas emissions from all sources for 2021 amount to 59,400,000 tons.

At the same time, at least one of Gazprom’s enterprises — the Novoportovskoye oil and gas condensate field — lists its greenhouse gas emissions at zero. However, this enterprise also reports that it releases 182,000 tons of methane a year. Methane has 35 times the impact on the climate than does carbon dioxide.  Norilsk Nickel’s self-reported zero greenhouse gas emissions also looks dubious. In fact, the company reported in 2022 that it released 7.7 million tons of greenhouse gas equivalent from all of its enterprises, including those outside the Arctic.

Cape-Kamenny The shipping and receiving point "Cape Kamenny" of the Novoportovskoye oil and gas condensate field. According to Rosprirodnadzor, the field is being developed with zero greenhouse gas emissions. Credit: Vadimirushka /

Table 1. Emissions and discharges of companies that own Arctic zone enterprises  classified as hazard class 1, the most harmful in the Russian classification system

Company Greenhouse gas emissions, in thousands of tons of CO2-equivalent per year Pollutant emissions, in thousands of tons per year Wastewater discharges, in millions of tons per year
Norilsk Nickel (3 industrial complexes in Norilsk, Monchegorsk and Nikel. 0 1933,9 268,2
Gazprom (9 oil and gas fields) 36993,995 2381,825 0
Lukoil (8 oil fields) 24340,345 190,635 0
Novatek (2 oil and gas fields) 10828,435 70,525 0
Vorkutacoal (5 mines and enrichment factories 695,48 417,72 17,1
Evrokhim (Kovdorsky mining and enrichment mill) 64,65 13,99 6,2
Severstal  (Karelian Pellet) 603,82 84,11 16,8
AFK Systema  (SEGEZH PULP AND PAPER MILL 275,92 10,12 35,2
Archangelsk Pulp and Paper Mill 0 7,14 20

Source: This table was created on the basis of data from Rosprirodnadzor. The year for which the data is presented is not indicated on the Rosprirodnadzor website, presumably 2021, since operators of the Rosprirodnadzor database must enter data for the reporting year no later than December 31 of the year following.

Who sponsors the pollution?

The resources extracted in the Arctic are primarily exported, even to countries that have imposed sanctions on Russia over the Ukrainian invasion Oil, gas, nickel, palladium, cobalt and other metals are all among the goods the US and Europe continue to buy from Russian Arctic industries.

Indeed, despite their attempts to limit the import Russian gas and oil, the EU countries continue to buy hydrocarbons from Russia.  Arctic oil that went to Europe before the war is now sent by sea to Asia — and from there to Europe, albeit in smaller volumes than before.  Until 2022, Europe’s main gas supplier was Gazprom, which sent its product via pipelines. Now there is a noticeable increase in liquid natural gas arriving by ship.

In 2022, volumes of liquefied natural gas from the Novatek plant in Yamal — another company actively polluting the Arctic — increased by 30 percent over the previous year and amounted to $7.1 billion, although that is still slightly less than the prewar volumes of gas it supplied via Russia-Europe pipelines. In 2023, gas supplies from the Yamal plant continued. In the first six months of this year, 130 LNG deliveries were made to EU countries, mainly France, Belgium and Spain.

It’s worth noting that a 20 percent stake of the Yamal LNG project still belongs to the French energy corporation TotalEnergies, as does another 10 percent stake in another joint project with Novatek for another Arctic liquefied natural gas project called Arctic LNG LLC. TotalEnergies additionally owns 19.4 percent of Novatek itself. True, the French energy giant was forced by public pressure to relinquish its shares in Novatek as Russian companies came under partial sanctions.

In December of 2022, Total announced the recall of two of its Novatek board representatives and, further, that it would abstain from making any decisions on the company’s activities. It was, however, unable to sell its stakes due to the EU sanctions against the company. Nonetheless, Total’s supplies of Yamal gas continue to hit the market at volumes of 4 million tons per year in accordance with previous long-term contracts.

Meanwhile, Norilsk Nickel’s main customers remain countries of the European Union. The giant corporation has not yet been included on any sanctions list and is thus free to sell its wares on the European market. According to the United Nations global trade platform Comtrade, $1.1 billion worth of Russian nickel was sold in the EU during the first six months of 2023.  This is 38 percent less than was the EU purchased in the first six months of 2022 — which came to $1.8 billion.  This may not be due to a physical decrease in the mass of metal purchased, but to strong price fluctuations in 2022. The extent to which this downward trend in Russian nickel continues — if it continues — will be apparent when more data appear.

yamal lng Yamal LNG is the largest liquefied natural gas plant in the Russian Arctic with a capacity of 16.5 million tons of LNG per year.

The second biggest consumer of Russian nickel is China, which in 2022 imported $1.2 billion worth of the commodity.

Palladium and cobalt are two more metals that Norilsk Nickel sells to Europe. During the first half of 2023, Europe bought 8.7 tons of palladium for $452.3 million. Another major purchaser of Russian palladium is the United States, which in 2022 bought $1.4 billion, or 20.4 tons, of the metal. Cobalt sales from Russia to the EU during the first half of 2023 also crested 112.8 tons at $3.9 million, while in 2022, they totaled 1,260 tons at $72.7 million.

Every large corporation extracting resources in the Russian Arctic is in one way or another connected to the Russian state and likewise pays significant tax revenues into the Russian state budget — which in turn is spent on continuing the war in Ukraine. Purchasing goods and commodities from these companies not only burdens the fragile Arctic ecosystem with yet more pollution but constitutes financial support for military aggression.